From the 16th to the 18th of November I cried. In the car, walking the dog, in the toilets at work. In the shower, cooking dinner, hanging out the washing. Wherever I was where no one could see me.
On the 19th of November I got up in the morning and vacuumed the lounge. I hung out a small load of washing on the drying rack in front of the window. I drove into town for Greer’s end of year dance show. At the library afterwards a blue spine caught my eye out of a pile of withdrawn books. The subtitle; Coming out in the Anglican Church. For a moment, my whole body came alive. I bought the book.
At about two o’clock I drove across town and up the hill to my friend’s house. Together we went to the gardens, where tall trees lean over the edge and green shrubs produce bold flowers beside curves of grass. We sat on a bench in the sun looking out. I opened my mouth. I said something I’d never said out loud before. I’ve realised I’m gay, I said. Deep down I know I’m longing to be with a woman. We cried.
Dinner was chicken and vegetables, roasted by Pat back at our little bungalow on the other side of the hills. We ate it together, all five of us around the small borrowed table in the corner of the lounge. It was a normal Saturday night, except that we both knew we needed to talk. We waited, me skulking, obsessively tidying, waiting for the girls to sleep. It was a long evening.
There wasn’t much to say. I just had to get it out. I have a deep desire to be with a woman. I’m not bi, I’m gay, I said. The words were clipped, serious. His face fell. He stood up. He paced the room. What is that supposed to mean? He said. What does that even mean? He sat back down on the couch. I told him everything I knew. He listened.
It was like taking our future into my bare arms and throwing it off the edge of a precipice. We both watched as it fell, broken faces. But neither of us reached up to grab it. Once I had let it go, we could not pick it up.
We cried. We kept crying. I sat there watching him, knowing exactly what I had done. Wishing like anything I could do something to take it back. But there was nothing I could do. Once the words were out, they were out.
Let’s take communion, I said. I went to the kitchen and came back with a plate. Two squares of bread on it, two glasses of juice. It was a meal of desperation. I think I said God help us. After that we played a round of scrabble, my idea. I wanted us to stay on the couch. I felt like once we got up off the couch it would be the end.
But it wasn’t the end.
* * *
I wonder now how the stories will go. All the half-written essays. The one about flying and telling the truth. The one that whispered to me every time I tried to finish it; really? Are you really telling the truth? How will the stories go now that I know who I am? Now that I’m here.
Let me tell you about beautiful women. Soft faces, whole worlds behind clear eyes. That little bit of smooth skin at the waist. I got to see my friend. She was going but I saw her before she left. She was on her way but she was so present sitting next to me. Ella took a photo of us: smiling wide and beautiful. My friend had no idea what I’d realised about myself. I sat next to her smiling and knew without saying a thing. She was beautiful to me. She is beautiful to me.
To be unable to speak those words: she is beautiful. This was my life. From the age of ten, when I saw a woman’s naked breast for the first time. I can still remember the line of it as she turned towards me. Beautiful, I thought, but couldn’t say. Then later, a friend, I loved to watch her mouth when she read her poetry. Beautiful, everything in me knew it. But did I let myself know it?
And in between, all the girlfriends I loved dearly and wondered why the friendship never came back to me in quite the way I gave it. What was missing? Why did I love them so much? I never knew. They were beautiful to me. But I couldn’t say it.
I went on a Sunday school camp with a friend. We were ten or eleven. We talked late one night in two top bunks, head to head. Her voice was soft and her face was kind. I asked her if she wanted to hold my hand and she did. We fell asleep, hands clasped. It was heaven. There was nothing in it. Oh but there was everything in it. The kindness of a friend. A picture of intimacy. A clue like a magic stone I wouldn’t pick up until more than thirty years later.
What is it like to live for so many years without putting voice to a longing? What is it like to feel something but have no words for it? What is it like to feel something and simultaneously reject it? To nullify it instantly? To feel it and unfeel it at exactly the same time?
It is like wrapping yourself up in bandages. Winding the pressing grey weave tight. Winding it tight, layer over layer. This is wrong, this is a feeling I am not feeling. I am not feeling this feeling. Over and over. Tight and covered.
Give me a roomful of women. Give me a world of women. Give me one soft hand; my own. Let me clasp it, soft on soft, all my own. This is how I learn to love a woman, by learning to love myself.
* * *
On the 18th of November I started listening to Sinead O’Connor on IV through my headphones while I sat working in the staffroom. Working face down so that no one could see my dark eyes. Take me to church. The ones that don’t hurt. I don’t want to love the way I’ve loved before. Hitting refresh over and over. Dragging myself to classes and then hiding away as soon as they were over.
On the 21st of November I changed the song. There’s no safety to be acquired. Riding streetcars of desire. I have chosen, I have chosen, to become the one I’m longing. And in the moment I first heard it, I knew. What did I know?
I knew that I had chosen to become what I was longing for. To become her. To become the one who takes my hand, the one who loves me back the way I love her. The one who watches me, the one who knows how beautiful I am.
Tell me, how does that go? How do I do that? Who will teach me?
* * *
I looked for a picture to go with this essay. I wanted to be in the picture. The picture needed to be of me. And it needed to be close to the time I am describing here, a picture from before I said the words out loud to all of you, I am lesbian. I scrolled through image after image on my phone. Searching for myself. Where was I?
All I could find was a picture of my feet. It was my birthday, a whole year ago, and we were at the beach. A wild day, windy and grey. We were right out on the edge of everything, facing the arctic. I was happy to be there, happy to be with my family. But I spent most of that day with an ache I couldn’t name. Something was missing.
You might think my story is commonplace. Plenty of people come out later in life. Coming out, in our moderate nation anyway, is now a familiar cultural event. It’s not so unusual. Or perhaps you’re on the other side of things and think my story is broken. That I’ve broken my family. Perhaps you think I could have asked for help. Perhaps you think I could have changed.
But none of you have any idea how much I want to live.